It’s shaping up to be a funny last quarter in the world of civil aviation – particularly in Japan. Late last week, Japan Airlines (JAL) – Asia’s biggest carrier – announced another round of restructuring that will see it shutter the Tokyo-Vancouver-Mexico City route and shut down a host of other destinations across Asia and its home market, while on Monday JAL’s senior management said they would forgo drawing a salary for the month of December after news that the airline’s pension fund was under serious threat. Across town at rival carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA), however, the contrast couldn’t be sharper. The carrier has just unveiled one of the biggest service overhauls the aviation industry has seen in over 18 months.
Earlier today, aviation and business correspondents from around the world descended on the ANA Intercontinental in Tokyo’s Akasaka district for a rare bit of positive news – investment in passenger experience. As perfectly coiffed ANA flight attendants manned press counters and investors and journalists queued for prime positions at the midday press conference, the airline’s product managers were busy behind closed doors prepping their various “products” for the scrutiny of cameras and analysts. While JAL has been battling criticism from all angles for its ageing fleet, disjointed in-flight service and lack of a focused strategy, ANA has gained headlines for being the launch customer for the much-delayed Boeing 787 and Mitsubishi MRJ – and is now widely seen as the quietly confident challenger to JAL’s increasingly dated product.
“We were hoping to unveil our new cabin experience on the 787 but we decided we couldn’t wait anymore, so it’s going on our new 777s from early in the new year,” explained a marketing executive from ANA while demonstrating the airline’s new approach to catering.
Having lagged behind its Asian neighbours in both marketing and product terms for nearly two decades, ANA took up the flag for Japan by showing it wants to be a serious challenger to Cathay Pacific and Singapore and a strong partner to Japan Inc. Along the perimeter of the ballroom, various static displays demonstrated the new food, drink, crockery and amenities on offer, and also the brands and personalities involved in delivering the total concept, dubbed Inspiration of Japan. From special first-class mattresses by Airweave to business-class menus by celebrity chef Harumi Kurihara, via a new in-flight entertainment system by Panasonic, ANA was keen to demonstrate that Japan is still a nation of innovation and, despite the problems with JAL, a serious force in global aviation. After all, Boeing’s 787 benefits from a great deal of Japanese input – from the likes of Kawasaki, Fuji Heavy Industries and Toray.
With service already in place and hardware set to take flight, ANA’s next challenge is to boost brand-awareness among travellers who are more familiar with Qantas, Thai and Emirates. If part of JAL’s problem is a small international profile and a tiny non-Japanese passenger base, ANA will need to build a compelling global marketing message to convince Chinese, Germans and Americans to transit via Tokyo.